Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Prison Beauty Queens: A Conversation with the Director of Miss Gulag

Written by Josie Schoel

Over the past few years, prison beauty pageants have been cropping up all over the world, from Miss Jail in Brazil (last year’s winner was convicted murderer Rebecca Rhaysa Suelen Guedesin) to Miss Captivity in Lithuania. A far cry from the Trump empire pageants, with their limos, flashing paparazzi, and Oscar de la Renta gowns, these contests are held in women’s penal colonies, and the contestants have all been convicted of murder, assault, and/or robbery. This year, just before International Women’s Day, a particularly popular holiday in Eastern Europe, Maria Gapenko of the far eastern city of Vladivostok, Russia, was crowned Miss Spring 2012.

In her documentary, Miss Gulag, documentary filmmaker Maria Yatskova takes an unbiased look at one such pageant that takes places each May Day at prison UF-91/9 in Siberia. The trailer for Miss Gulag commences with a montage of the bleak day-to-day of prison life, and then jumps to the startling image of a heavily made up woman dressed in the manner of an eighteenth century French aristocrat. In her thick Russian tongue the woman states, “I think a woman should always be beautiful. Not just outside the fence. Even if she’s in here, she should know her beauty. She shouldn’t hide it in these walls. A woman should embody everything perfect and beautiful.” She then looks to the left, smiles slightly and says, “I’m in for assault.”

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Yatskova, who grew up in New York City after her grandmother and mother escaped the Soviet regime, to discuss the politics of beauty, Russian hyper-masculinity, and what it means that the prisoners she features in Miss Gulag are the first generation of women to come of age in post-Soviet Russia.

Josie: Beauty pageants have always been very polarizing, with those toeing the party line about the exploitation of the female body on one side, and those looking towards the perfect turn in a bikini as a decent way to earn a scholarship. The Miss Spring beauty contest seems to be about so much more than just the outward expression of beauty; it seems to also be about intellect and the growth of the individual.

Maria: I don’t like this word, but it was almost wholesome in a way. It was innocent. They learned about Greek goddesses and plants. There was intellect involved because they had to prepare for it and choose these Greek myths and relate to them. There was thought to it. It wasn’t just that they had to put on a bikini and strut around.

Josie: You documented the life story of an inmate who had beaten someone in a gas station with a gang of other girls. She had been in the prison for some time, but after she demonstrated good behavior by participating in the pageant, she was released. What do you think about the positive correlation between success in the pageant and release back into society?

Maria: To be honest, for simplicity’s sake, I made that correlation a little stronger than it was in reality. She did serve her time. She was there for seven years. That’s seven years of good behavior. And also there was one male judge, but the rest were women, and the fact of it was that that was an expression of good behavior, participating in the contest. [It was ] an expression of her will to participate in life rather than retreating into herself and being sullen.

Josie: I was going to ask about women who aren’t conventionally beautiful, and if you think the relationship between early release and participation in the pageant is fair to them, but it seems like there isn’t a real correlation between the two.

Maria: Did you see those women?

Josie: Yes.

Maria: Well if we are talking about body type, they are so skinny because they are totally malnourished. It isn’t something they are necessarily striving for. You should see what they eat over there. I would probably skip a meal or two as well if I was there. But yes, the prettier girls are the ones to get chosen to be in it.

Josie: You have written about how it was frowned upon for women to flaunt their beauty and femininity in postrevolutionary times. Do you think this is partially why the Miss Spring beauty pageant is appealing to you, as well as to others? Because, inasmuch as it’s a portrait of the first generation of women to come of age in post-Soviet Russia, it’s a real celebration of femininity?

Maria: It’s a break from their routine. In the middle of all of this horrible ugliness, grayness, and mundane everyday life there, which is just torture essentially, there is a little color. They aren’t allowed to wear any makeup or dress or do anything like that. Of course they were exhilarated to do that. I had some shots of them in their afternoon lineup and some of them didn’t have time to or didn’t want to take off their makeup, so they were in that cold lineup in those horrid uniforms, but they still had their fake eyelashes on and the glitter on their faces, and they actually looked happy. For me, that was really moving.

Josie: What was the atmosphere of competition like?

Maria: First of all, they work in teams. And many girls are friends. For example Yulia actually helped sew another girl’s dress, and there was plenty of communal sharing and caring. I think that each one certainly tried her best — but they know it's not "for real"—as in a real Miss Russia or Miss Universe. They also know that everyone gets a prize and a title of some sort, even if they are not Miss Spring. Ultimately, they do it for fun and self-expression. It looks good on their records and takes them out of the drudgery for awhile.

Josie: Was it difficult to get the rights to shoot at the prison? Was there a reason you picked that prison?

Maria: I read an article about it. In terms of how easy or difficult it was to shoot there, I think we got lucky. We followed all the appropriate channels and did all the paperwork, and it took a long time, but it wasn’t like people were actively trying to not allow us in. But I do think we just got lucky.

Josie: In the film, the guards seem surprisingly supportive of the girls.

Maria: It’s hard to gauge how much of that is real and how much is for the cameras. I think that they are supportive in the sense that they want to see them get out and have a good life. As a woman, essentially, if you spend too long in that place, effectively, your life is over. If you come out at thirty-five, you will probably, or it’s unlikely that, you will get married or have children or get an education or anything like that. So yes, they really did want to see them get out as soon as possible to put their lives back on track.

Josie: You said this is especially true for women. Why?

Maria: Well, yeah. Especially in Russia where those stereotypes are really active. It’s normal for a fifty-year-old man to be dating a seventeen-year-old girl. You will never see the reverse. Plus a man can have kids up until he is ninety. As long as it works! But for a woman, her time is very short in that sense.

Josie: During the postrevolutionary period, gender stereotypes were being uprooted. But in the end, it seemed that women were stripped of their sexuality and then in turn seemed to be doing "everything." Do you see any correlation here with the feminist movement in America?

Maria: That’s a really good question. Yes, I do see the correlation, and it’s kind of ironic because the two countries were always positioned as being so different and at odds with each other, but I actually think that Russian women and American women have quite a bit in common and what you are writing about there being one of those things. Right now you see. . . sometimes the women are the primary bread winners, and the men aren’t home. Whereas in America, the men have also, to some extent, have tried to catch up. For example, if the woman is the primary bread winner, and the man is at home, he doesn’t think it’s somehow beneath him to cook and clean and do the laundry and take the kids to the park, whereas in Russia, the woman will be the primary bread winner, and she will have to come home and cook and clean and take the kids to the park, while he sits on his ass. And he will resent her. American men are more prone to helping out around the house and being more of a partner. Russian men won’t lift a finger.

Josie: Is this model changing at all?

Maria: No, I don’t think so. My husband isn’t like that, but he’s not Russian. He’s from Azerbaijan. But he’s an exception.

Josie: So it sounds like you haven’t seen any demonstration of progress with a newer generation?

Maria: No. I think it will take a couple generations.

Josie: Now for a dramatic change of topic: What is your dream subject?

Maria: I would love to do a ballet film. I have friends who are dancers at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and friends at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, so I have always wanted to do a film about Russian ballet. I danced as a child and as a teenager, so I loved ballet, so that would be the dream project: A Russian ballet film. I read about this thing they are doing. They are sending young American dancers to the Bolshoi, so I thought that could be an amazing movie. Take some girl from Texas or something and follow her as she starts training in a totally new world.

Josie: That sounds seriously awesome. I would love to see that. What are you working on now?

Maria: A film called The Centenarians of Azerbaijan. The first premise was to "discover the secret" to longevity, but eventually as I shot it, this became more of an ironic quest or ruse to get a portrait of these people.

Josie: So you are saying that there isn't a secret fountain of youth?

Maria: I think that there is, and it's inside all of us. More than the food, water, air, or genes. It is just the love of life. The simple pleasures. Good humor, love, and family. All these contribute.

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